‘Down Along with That Devil’s Bones’ Explores America’s Complex Relationship with Racism

Journalist Connor Towne O’Neill, author of Down Along with That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy, was looking for free parking in Selma, Alabama, where he’d arrived to report on the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. He ended up turning into the city’s Old Live Oak Cemetery. There, he found a quiet spot, which was just two miles from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where demonstrators — including then-president Barack Obama — were gathering to remember and honor all that had happened in that same spot back in 1965 and to again march for civil rights. But there, in the Old Live Oak Cemetery, O’Neill also found a group of people gathering around an empty pedestal in a part of the cemetery called the Confederate Memorial Circle.

“These days it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing to encounter neo-Confederates at a civil rights anniversary,” O’Neill writes. “After Dylan Roof, after Donald Trump, after the man-boys with undercuts Seig-heiling before his inauguration, after the tiki torches and the Dodge Challenger in Charlottesville, these sorts of juxtapositions have come to feel inevitable, the deep dissonance of the American story floating so much closer to the surface. But on that day back in 2015, I was affronted, yes, but also curious, the way you might feel when passing a bad car wreck. I just wasn’t yet aware of the ways in which I was a part of the pileup, too.”

O’Neill, who is white and grew up in Pennsylvania, approached the group and learned that they call themselves the Friends of Forrest, and that three years earlier, also on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the bronze bust of the Confederate Army general Nathan Bedford Forrest had disappeared off of that pedestal. Now, after lawsuits and protests and the gathering of funds, the Friends of Forrest were getting ready to unveil a replacement statue of their hero.

From that moment on, O’Neill, who hadn’t known much about Forrest, began to see him everywhere — all around Alabama and in other states, too, from street, park, and school names to an image of the goateed-man’s face pinned up at a gas station. The same day he met the Friends, O’Neill spotted a billboard half a mile away from the Edmund Pettus bridge showing Forrest on horseback, with the words “Keep the Skeer on ’Em”—“skeer” being a dialectic spelling of “scare.” So, O’Neill began to research Forrest, and he learned of his trajectory from being born into poverty to becoming a wealthy slave trader, from businessman to Confederate military leader. Forrest, O’Neill also learned, was a man of many nicknames, including “The Butcher of Fort Pillow” for his role in murdering more than one hundred Black Union soldiers after they had already surrendered. After the war, Forrest upgraded from nicknames to titles, serving as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. It was a legacy that, to some, was worthy of celebrating. O’Neill writes, “There are thirty-one Forrest monuments in his home state of Tennessee — more than all three of the state’s presidents (Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, and James Polk) combined.” 

This investigation into the physical, tangible ways Forrest has been memorialized led O’Neill to expand his research on other Confederate monuments and to examine the complexity of America’s relationship with racism. And over the course of five years, O’Neill not only began to better understand the connection between the past and still-pervasively present issues, he began to uncover latent biases within himself.

“When I first started writing about Forrest,” O’Neill points out, “I conceived of myself as an outside observer. I would bear witness, document, report on the referendums on Forrest taking place in [Selma, Nashville, Murfreesboro, and Charlottesville]. But I came to see a larger proxy war in the offing, one that has engulfed the entire nation and implicated me as well…. I was prompted to ask questions about race that I’d never asked before, had never thought to ask before.”

Thoughtful, thorough, and straightforward, O’Neill achieves a tone that conveys his professional, journalistic curiosity while also capturing a sense of something more intimate, a personal journey toward self-reckoning. Down Along with That Devil’s Bones, which took O’Neill five years to write and is his first book, is packed with information, showing how events from decades and even centuries ago relate to the news stories dominating America now. But it also reminds the reader that at the core of politics lies our humanity and our ability to learn, understand, and change. Down Along with That Devil’s Bones is a critically important tool for helping us to make sense of how we got to where we are today and where we — as individuals, as Americans, as people — might go from here.    

Down Along with That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy
By Connor Towne O’Neill
Algonquin Books
Published September 29, 2020